Entries from September 2005 ↓

More Than An Athlete

Professional athletes are not known for taking potentially controversial positions on social issues. Most consult their agents and managers, fret over the possible loss of multi-million dollar endorsements and then keep their mouths shut. Given notoriety and a public platform because of their athletic prowess, most hand over their citizenship rights in the process.


Etan Thomas of the NBAís Washington Wizards is an exception to that rule. Since arriving in the league out of Syracuse University in 2000, the 6í10Ē center has made a name for himself both on and off the court, most notably with the publication of a book of poetry, More Than An Athlete. In his writing and public speeches, Thomas has been stepping up to the plate and taking a stand on many of todayís hot-button issues, like the death penalty, racism, abortion and the war in Iraq.

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush Administrationís glaring missteps in coming to the aid of thousands of poor, mostly Black residents of New Orleans, Thomas has again spoken out. In an article on Alternet.com, Thomas challenged the federal governmentís response and added his name to the growing chorus of those dissatisfied with the leadership in Washington.

“I definitely agree with Kanye West,” Thomas said. “Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water? When the hurricane hit in Florida, Bush made sure those people got help the next day. But now, when you are dealing with a majority poorer class of black people, it takes five days? Then you still don’t send help but instead send the National Guard to ‘maintain order’? Are you kidding me?”

Thomas is well aware that speaking out may exact a professional price, but heís unconcerned.

“I admire athletes of the past, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]–athletes who used their position as a platform to speak out on social issues and stand up for a cause. Basketball is not my life. A quote I live by is: ‘I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed.’ “

Just Another Day In New York

So, Wednesday afternoon Iím leaving the office and get on the elevator and thereís this big guy in there fidgeting with his PDA. Jeans, a black sport coat, some kinda shirt or other, and a ball cap pulled down on his head. Heís unshaven and could have easily passed for a bum if his clothes werenít clean. I press the button to go down and he says in a low, husky voice, ďHey, how you doing man.Ē I say hey back and then realize I recognized the voice.

ďYouíre Danny Glover,Ē I say.

ďYeah, how you doing man.Ē

The elevator reaches the lobby and as the door opened, he actually dropped the PDA, letting out an expletive along the way. I want to stay and commiserate having broken one the same way about a year ago, but it seems to still be working, so I just leave.

I make my way uptown to my other gig, where I settle in for the next five hours, working the appetizer station. A short time later a guy takes a seat at the bar who I recognize because Iím such a big sports fan. Youíd have to be to know who he is. My co-worker only knew him because he comes in a lot, apparently to chat up one of the waitresses. I fill him on all the work the guy has done and he seemed moderately impressed.

The night went easy enough but about 45 minutes before closing, another semi-celeb walked in with a friend and stayed to enjoy the food and the jazz combo playing. Before the night was over, he had the sweet potato ravioli and the barbecue pizza, both of which I prepared. No particular honor in that, I try to make them perfect for everyone who eats there.

After closing and the long subway ride uptown, my five block walk from the train to my apartment was interrupted by screams and cries from tenants in a building along the way. Their building was on fire and smoke was flowing from a sixth floor window. Fire trucks arrived within seconds and the problem was brought under control, but not before the neighborhood got a good show.

In any other city, all of this might even be newsworthy.

Tin Soldiers

Charles Fullerís 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning A Soldierís Play, when performed well, is a searing drama laced with racial tension and issues of power, privilege and assimilation, wrapped around a murder investigation on a segregated US Army base in Louisiana during World War II. It should evoke feelings of frustration over the slow pace of social change and the sometimes misguided ways in which people attempt to prove their self-worth.

However, when staged badly, as in the case of the first major New York revival of this play currently in production at Second Stage Theatre, the telling of this still timely story can be impaired by superficial, one-dimensional acting, unclear motivations and general miscasting.

This is one of those ďtestosterone playsĒ of all-male casts, for which the theatre community has become famous. Inherent in all of them and this one in particular, is an analysis of the emotionally distant ways in which men communicate with one another. Add a racially segregated military setting and we see power dynamics at play across several levels, with the resultant dysfunctional behavior by all affected parties.

Fort Neal is an Army base of Black enlisted men and White officers set in a small, notoriously red-neck and hostile community in Louisiana. The platoon commanded by Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel) is comprised of many former Negro League players and has been formed primarily to represent the base as a baseball team. When not playing, they also have to do the grunt work of hauling garbage, painting barracks and policing the grounds. Not quite what they enlisted for, the men have grown bored beating White Army ball clubs and are anxious to see action in Europe to show they can fight Nazis just as well as anyone else.

When Sgt. Waters turns up murdered off the base, the Ku Klux Klan are the presumed culprits. High level foot-dragging ensues as top brass make every effort to just make the case go away. They want neither the wrath from the neighboring community, scrutiny from the Negro newspapers nor unrest from Black soldiers.

The only Black lawyer in the Armyís investigative unit, Captain Richard Davenport (Taye Diggs) is sent from Washington to take over, but his arrival only creates more tension for Captain Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale) the White officer who has been handling things to date. He canít understand how a Black man will be able to make any headway in this environment and believes Davenport has been set up to fail. That, and having to now take orders from the first Black officer heís ever seen, heightens his frustration.

By interrogating the men in the platoon and other suspects, Davenport gets a picture of who Waters was and why anyone might want to kill him. What he learns is that the Sargeant was perceived by his White superiors as a hard-driving and disciplined platoon leader, but to his men, seen as vindictive and punitive, hell-bent on weeding out those he deems as weak or an embarrassment to the Black race. To get ahead of the White man, Waters believes, we must be seen at all times as better than them. Thus the slow talking, guitar picking and grinning country boys like Private C.J. Memphis (Mike Colter) must be rooted out.

With the right personnel, you can prepare an army for any battle. In the case of this production, this unit isnít quite up for the fight. It is hard to pinpoint whether producers simply cast the parts wrong, Director Jo Bonney failed to focus their performances, or the actors themselves simply failed to understand and convey who their characters are. But something was amiss in Tuesday nightís performance.

Capt. Davenport needs to be a man able to demonstrate great self-confidence even if inwardly uncertain. Heís the only Black officer/lawyer in the U.S. Army and heís being sent into a potential hornetís nest! That requires a commanding presence and a steely resolve. Taye Diggs gave audiences none of that. Instead of being a cocksure officer, he came off as an actor trying to play a cocksure officer. Note to Costume Designer David Zinn: cut Diggsí uniform jacket a little shorter and take it in at the waist. Visually, he looks like he has not fully grown into this role.

James McDanielís Sgt. Waters was equally tepid. He had the bluster and verbal noise without any of the physically imposing posture of an Army sargeant. There is little wonder why his Waters was murdered. He gave little to show why his men were afraid of him nor a true sense of the crusade heís on to uplift the race.

Michael Genet did little with Private James Wilkie, the one-time Master Sargeant himself who gets busted down to a private by Waters. Beyond speaking the lines Fuller wrote, he demonstrated none of the bitterness a real man would have who has seen his career taken from him and Genet at times seemed too over the top.

Perhaps Steven Pasquale has lived in integrated environments and is unfamiliar with being a White man forced to accept a Black man as his superior but his Capt. Taylor seemed more confused by Davenportís arrival than incensed over the snubbing. This is supposed to be 1944 and no White man would have accepted the change so calmly.

Anthony Mackie does a decent job as Private First Class Melvin Peterson, but at times seemed to rush his lines. He gave one of the few natural performances and has a genuine stage presence. One can only wonder what he might have done in the Davenport role.

In a small role, but actually one of the best performances of the evening, Nelsan Ellis as Corporal Bernard Cobb, had a moving moment in his testimony about what happened to his good friend C.J. Audiences could sense their bond and his loss and the characterís uneasiness at talking about it. This was not the laborious acting of some of his fellow performers but feelings expressed by a real man.

Unfortunately, Mike Colter as C.J. lacked the range to show more than a big ole country boy. The internal pain he goes through being imprisoned for a crime he didnít commit was never fully realized.

The first public performance of a play usually generates either of two scenarios: the actors are tired of rehearsing and have put everything into giving a great show to start the run off on the right foot, or itís still a work in progress and they are finding their way. Tuesday eveningís show proved to be the latter, right down to the very awkward way in which the company fumbled their curtain call.

Letís hope that by the time the play officially opens on October 17, they will have ironed out the rough spots and gotten this platoon to march in formation.

Damn!

The hard drive on my computer died last week. The laptop is in the shop until next Friday. I’m hoping all my data is retrievable. (And don’t even ask that question. You know the answer is no.)

Blogging and emailing can only be done during weekday daytime hours until then.

Damn!

But Enough About YouÖ

He started it. He responded. He copied. So will I.

Starting to gain weight again. Concerned. Less time to get to the gym. Two jobs are physically demanding. Actually enjoying restaurant work. Not sure what to do with the skill. Still need a vacation. Never know what to do with vacations. Never taken very many. Vacationing alone sucks. Life alone sucks. Fear thatís the present and the future. Mentally preparing for that possibility. Hear the chronological clock ticking. Acts of slutaciousness cause depression. Love, not sex. Need to feel desired. Feel nothing. Feel professionally competent, qualified, creative, innovative, capable. A leader. Would have been heteroly married eons ago. Women get it. Men donít. Personally feel inadequate, invisible, intimidate/-ing/-ed. Social outsider. Never ďenough.Ē Move on in spite. Need to act. Need to write. Need to see more creativity expressed. Need space. Need nature. Too needy?